The students in Willow Gersch’s fourth grade classroom at El Camino Real Academy fill out world maps last year. The students in Gersch’s classes do half of their lessons in Spanish and the other half in English.

El español es mi primer idioma.

Spanish is my first language, but early on, I attended an all-English school outside of my district zone to receive personalized English academics in a smaller classroom setting — something I wouldn’t have received if I had participated at a large elementary school within the zone. Because my academics were in English, I slowly withdrew from speaking Spanish at home. Though I have started using Spanish daily, I still struggle to speak it confidently after seven years of mostly speaking English. Due to my experiences losing my native language, I became interested in exploring how native Spanish speakers, who are usually on the south side of town in large elementary schools, can be disadvantaged in receiving a good education with equal resources.

In 2015, the Santa Fe Reporter wrote that achievement gaps between students learning English and students who have English as a first language were especially visible in the early grades. Sweeney and Ramirez Thomas elementary schools, Nina Otero Community School and El Camino Real Academy, all on the south side of Santa Fe, have a high number of English acquisition learners, and when testing, only about 10 percent of students scored with high marks on reading tests. By contrast, schools with fewer English-language learners such as Carlos Gilbert, Wood Gormley and Acequia Madre elementary schools showed almost half of their students earning high marks on reading tests.

How is that reflective of the resources provided to students on Santa Fe’s south side?

Exploring a dual-language K-8 school in Santa Fe

English is the dominant language of the U.S., which is why I was always under the impression that bilingual students’ education was tailored to how well they spoke it. Failure to meet expected speaking, reading or writing requirements by a certain time would result in being placed in special education programming, as educators threatened to do with me from failure to pronounce consonants at the rate they wanted me to. I was under the impression dual-language programs were structured to confine students to learn English with the occasional assistance in Spanish when necessary, hence slowly removing their ability to think and speak in Spanish.

My feelings toward bilingual education were likely biased against my elementary school, which emphasized a standard for its students’ English-speaking skills.

In a recent interview, El Camino Real Academy Principal Jack Lain reassured me that dual-language programming, at least in his school, is meant to benefit both English and Spanish native speakers. The school’s instruction is guided by a plan that schedules what percentage of core classes will be taught in Spanish and English. It starts with 80 percent Spanish instruction in kindergarten, Lain said.

“As the years go on, that percentage slowly declines so that by the time students reach third grade, the instruction received in English evens out with Spanish instruction,” he said. “By eighth grade, our students are biliterate in English and Spanish. They are the luckiest people in the world.”

The teachers receive special training in an instructional approach called “guided language acquisition design” to help support bilingual students with visual tools such as engaging videos. Additionally, by teaching core-curriculum classes in Spanish and English and finding beneficial resources across all grades, Lain said El Camino Real Academy fully invests in immersing its students in another language and teaches them the value of being biliterate.

Bilingual schools: What they lack and their benefits

A veces los padres de familias donde el inglés no es la primera lengua, al mandar a sus hijos a una escuela no bilingüe, están promoviendo la adquisición y el dominio del inglés en sus hijos,” said Mitchell Karina Rocha, a reading specialist in the special education department in Santa Fe Public Schools. Rocha emphasizes parents whose first language is not English who send their kids to all-English schools are not giving the best to their children.

Instead, they are promoting English acquisition that will dominate their lives. In sending their kids to an all-English school, parents take away their opportunity to be bilingual and biliterate.

Una educación bilingüe significa mayor aprendizaje, conocimiento y apreciación de otras culturas y oportunidades laborales y profesionales en el futuro. Se debe hacer más para poder destinar más recursos hacia las escuelas bilingües en el distrito para que sean la primera elección de todos padres,” she said.

Although bilingual education will give children knowledge and appreciation of other cultures and significant career opportunities, bilingual schools within the district don’t have the resources for parents to see them as their primary choice in schooling.

Cynthia Björk, a biliteracy specialist who focuses on dual-language programs in Santa Fe Public Schools, said “claro que si,” (of course!) when asked if native English speakers could also benefit from bilingual education.

However, Rocha and Björk believe while many dual-language schools are working toward quality bilingual education, there are not enough resources and tools to help them reach that level. Rocha considers demographic factors to play a significant role in schools and distributed resources.

Las escuelas bilingües necesitan más recursos para operar que las escuelas no bilingües. En este sentido, cuando no se cuentan con los recursos suficientes, las escuelas bilingües son las que sufren más daño,” she said. Bilingual schools need more resources than monolingual schools. Still, when factors such as poverty, academic achievement and dropout levels vary greatly based on where students go to school, bilingual schools suffer the most.

Additionally, with a teacher shortage, Björk emphasizes that many schools seem to be overwhelmed with the number of children in one classroom and believes children would benefit more from smaller class sizes. Björk and Rocha both acknowledge the difficulties teacher shortages have brought about, including, Rocha said, issues caused by the lack of bilingual teachers. Fewer Spanish-speaking teachers can prevent many Spanish-speaking families from becoming involved in their children’s individual educations, Björk said.

In September, researchers at New Mexico State University counted 98 of the state’s more than 1,000 teacher vacancies at that time had “bilingual” in the job title.

Although bilingual schools require a lot of resources and attention to fully develop the learner, in Santa Fe, where there is an emphasis on learning culture, bilingual programs are created by the efforts of the students, families, teachers, personal instruction and administration. Through bilingual education, students develop the mindset that both languages are equally important and learn to prioritize both, something I never did.

Fernanda Rodas is a junior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at rodas.fer09@gmail.com.

Fernanda Rodas is a junior at Mandela International Magnet School. She can be contacted at rodas.fer09@gmail.com.

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